Oscar-Nominated Short Films

HAD A BOT DAY: In 'Mr. Hublot,' the title character adopts a robot dog that grows into a monster mutt.

Nothing is as perfect as a short film, just as there's nothing like an arrow that hits its mark in the quickest time possible. The three categories of best shorts are being played as programs for general enlightenment, entertainment and to aid Oscar handicapping.

Among the best narrative short subjects there is one shoe-in and one knock-out. Of the best of the rest, Mark Gill's "The Voorman Project" remains (bearing in mind Cloud Atlas) the best film adaptation of novelist David Mitchell. It illustrates a passage in Mitchell's number9dream; Martin Freeman plays a fussy English psychiatrist dealing with a lunatic who believes himself to be God. (Things go south when the straitjacketed deity says, without looking at the doctor's notepad, "Solipsism only has one 'l.'")

The shoo-in for the award is "Helium," a mawkish Danish tale of a hospital janitor who befriends a dying little boy in a brick hospital; it's a moderate digital wow-factory of fantasy mitigating terminal illness. The ideal version of this kind of tale is Tarsem Singh's The Fall, but Andres Walter's is a serious ransacker: note nods to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, to Terry Gilliam's occasionally gassy fantasies (in a baroque lion ornament on the nose of a celestial blimp) and even, yeccch, to Patch Adams in a balloon-clown touch.

The real knockout, likely elbowed aside by "Helium," is Xavier Legrand's knuckle-biter "Just Before Losing Everything." The setting is a big-box store in a nowhere French suburb; a store's cashier (Lea Drucker) has arrived with her children and a trashbag full of her clothes in tow. Legrand makes this a Dardennes-brothers style act of following, only with more urgency as the details get filled in. Legrand expects us to catch up with the fast walk of a fleeing woman. You think of melodrama as definable by Thelma Ritter's line in All About Eve: "Everything but the bloodhounds snapping at her rear end"—yet this melodrama-free real-life horror story gives the sound of a baying dog a new thrill. One nice detail—the film's bastard does that diagonal parking job where he takes up two spaces. Who needs better shorthand for a disgusting character?

The Oscar Best Short animated film is vouchsafed for "Get a Horse!" the new Mickey Mouse cartoon attached to screenings of Frozen, but the other four nominees in a variety of styles give it stiff competition. The least of the four seems to be "Room on the Broom" despite a luminary voice cast (Gillian Armstrong, Sally Hawkins, Timothy Spall and Simon Pegg). Next up in quality is "Mr. Hublot" which will be playing at Cinequest; it's a steampunk CGI cartoon made particularly for those who love the minions in Despicable Me. A mechanical man in an antique Paris finds a shivering robot puppy and nurtures him until he's titanic, and the good Samaritan is forced halfway out of home. Director Laurent Witz does the title referent Jacques Tati proud in finding a way to tell the tale wordlessly.

"Posession" by Shuhei Morita is based on the Japanese animist whim that objects acquire a soul—likely a malevolent one—after 100 years of use. A tinker, square-jawed, tattered and itchy as great Mifune himself, is caught in a rainstorm. He's sheltered by a house full of objects—abandoned kimonos, busted parasols and a room of angry and undifferentiated junk. It's as bright a fictional film about creative reuse as can be imagined—Maker Faire attendees would love it.

"Possession" is a minor masterpiece, but somehow the wordless Daniel Souza cartoon "Feral" rattles the emotions harder. It's a painted story of an enfant sauvage found naked, running with wolves: the child is eyeless, but with a mouthful of nasty teeth. He/she is "rescued" by an oversized shadowy man, cleaned, dressed and sent to school. A person of sense doesn't allow themselves to think "I was a beautiful wild spirit once. The schools caged me, and then society after that." That's how it begins: then you end up as the kind of person who helps themselves to two separate parking spaces. However, you can watch something like "Feral" and feel that loss, that anger.

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